An excellent post on the nature of conflict can be found here.
My take on the topic? It's pretty simple. Conflict should engage two central storytelling elements:
- A decision or choice for out protagonist(s) to make
- Real consequences as a result of that decision
It manifests itself in any number of ways, but the outcome is almost always explicit action. Fight or flight? Over the Misty Mountains or through the Mines of Moria (and yes, despite Randall's analysis here, I am in the LOTR camp)? Dash out Piggy's brains with a conch shell or retain that final shred of humanity?
The major distinction to make is analyzing the arc of your story. Complication marks the outset of conflict. It's the stage in the narrative structure that precipitates the choice the protagonist(s) need to make. It's the catalyst that creates the choice that will drive the tension of your plot toward the climax (the reader payoff, baby).
So when it comes time to sketch out that next project, ask yourself a few questions:
- How do I want to test my hero or heroes?
- What do I want to their actions to say about their character?
- What details need to precipitate this test?
Drawing a line between the complication and the conflict will lead to tighter plotting and make for a stronger piece. That said, which examples of conflict are most memorable in your experiences with literature?